Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 January 2008
Issue No. 880
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Chavez's long shadow

The comparison with Al-Qaeda is overdone, but Colombia needs to push for peace with its paramilitary leftist groups and Chavez is at Bogota's service much to Uribe's chagrin, writes Gamal Nkrumah

This may turn out to be the high point in Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Latin American policy. The last thing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe would have wanted was to solicit the support of the Venezuelan leader. Ironically, the task of negotiating the release of Colombian hostages fell to President Chavez.

It is worth recalling first the circumstances of President Chavez's mediating role, and of Uribe's personal and political background. The Colombian president is perhaps the staunchest ally of the United States in Latin America. His Venezuelan counterpart is the sharpest thorn in the flesh of the US in the Western Hemisphere. Uribe harbours a personal vendetta against the armed opposition groups of Columbia. His father was assassinated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Columbia (better known by its Spanish acronym FARC) in 1983. FARC is by far the largest and most powerful paramilitary leftist group in Colombia, commanding a force of some 18,000 armed men and women.

The other two Colombian armed opposition groups -- the National Liberation Army of Columbia (ELM) and the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) -- collectively constitute a challenge for the democratic process of Colombia. They are leftist groups that claim to represent the interests of the downtrodden peoples of Colombia.

The US has had a despicable history in the region which many Latin Americans still cannot forgive. And, Uribe is widely viewed as an American stooge.

Uribe was swept into office after the 26 May 2002 presidential poll where he captured 53 per cent of the vote. Today, thanks to massive US investment and aid, Colombia enjoys robust 5.8 per cent economic growth, ahead of even oil- rich Venezuela.

Uribe presides over a thriving emerging economy, but Colombia is also a country with vast discrepancies of income. He is determined to remedy the situation, but the armed opposition groups warn that he is incapable of doing so. Colombia's gross domestic product per head stands at $3,555, Venezuela's GDP is triple its western neighbour -- an impressive $9,650 per head, which is much more evenly distributed thanks to Chavez's Bolivarian policies.

Chavez's mediatory efforts secured the release of two high profile hostages -- Colombian politicians who were kidnapped by FARC. The two women hostages were Consuelo Gonzalez and Clara Rojas. They both expressed their profound gratitude to President Chavez, and he basked in their adulation. And, there was something a bit rum about hanging out with a bunch of "terrorists". The incident has revived the age-long old debate in Latin America: populism versus bankrupt Western- style democracy which fails to satisfy the poor and disenfranchised majority.

The Rojas-Gonzales release represents a breakthrough in Latin American politics. You might expect even cynical Latin Americans to be impressed by the outcome.

Uribe hasn't the faintest idea about what goes on in his own backyard, the Colombian jungle. A number of Latin American leaders have voiced concern about the testing challenges that confront Latin American societies. Chief among the siren voices was that of Chavez. Against this backdrop, it is worth recalling the circumstances of Uribe's persistent denunciations of Chavez. He sees Chavez as an instigator of the insurgents and by implication is not able to squash them as long as Chavez is around.

Chavez, however, reiterated his position that FARC should refrain from taking hostages as part of their opposition tactics against the Uribe government. "I don't believe in kidnapping and I don't believe in the armed struggle," Chavez stressed. Nevertheless, he urged the international community to stop categorising FARC as a terrorist organisation.

The world is attentive to the personal aspects of the various FARC kidnappings, especially that of Rojas, who gave birth to a son, Emmanuel, during her captivity. Emmanuel was fathered by a FARC fighter. When the baby was eight months old he was returned to Bogota because of ill health. The personal tragedy of being separated from her now three- year-old son aroused international concern and dismay.

Last November, Uribe vowed to release all FARC hostages if they pledged to renounce the armed struggle and give up their arms. FARC flatly turned Uribe's offer down. Their answer was swift and terse. "It is clear now that there will not be a humanitarian exchange with Uribe's government," a rebel statement read.

Also in November 2007, Uribe gave Chavez less than a month and a half to clinch a deal with FARC over the hostages. Chavez refused to be pressured and argued that negotiations would take months.

Belatedly, by not soliciting Chavez's support from the start, Uribe found that he had dealt himself some lousy cards. When he realised just how lousy, he acquiesced. Uribe acknowledged that Chavez could be of help. To save a little face, Uribe sensibly followed the first rule of Hearts which is to get rid of your losers as quickly as possible. At the same time, he loudly disassociated himself with the politics of Chavez.

Even so, FARC regards Chavez as an ideological mentor and his Bolivarian Revolution as an inspiration. However, in his provocative appeal to world governments to remove FARC from the list of terrorist organisations, Chavez no doubt hoped to be instrumental in bringing the insurgency to an end if this were to prompt FARC to renounce the armed struggle and be integrated in the Colombian political mainstream. However, the taking of six more hostages by FARC on Monday and the continued holding of three American defence contractors and a French Colombian politician highlights FARC's autonomy.

Still, as far as Uribe is concerned, Chavez is too close for comfort. Any Colombian president will not bow to calls to surrender Colombian sovereignty. And Uribe is no exception. Uribe would prefer if Chavez would keep his distance and not meddle in Colombian politics. Chavez, for his part, is determined to leave his stamp on Latin American politics. His is not a bid for the leadership of Latin America. He would like to see, however, a united Latin America and the Caribbean. This was the dream of Simon Bolivar, and Chavez espouses Bolivar's vision.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. For Chavez, the unification of the southern half of the Western Hemisphere is of vital importance.

FARC is not on the wrong side of history. They have solid support in their native Colombia. That is an improvement on the recent past, but it is hardly an overwhelming triumph.

Chavez could tip the balance towards war or peace. A large number of Latin American leaders disagree with Chavez about almost everything. But he has staunch supporters and a popular appeal which is not restricted to his native Venezuela. Chavez's Venezuela is a bit player, but a crafty one.

The hostage-taking dilemma has confounded the Colombian political establishment. It was a necessary climb down for Uribe, but a boost for Chavez. Uribe is no Chavez, with a knowledge of radical Latin American politics that even his admirers admit is patchy.

In this episode, Chavez felt strong enough to distance himself from FARC's militancy. The Venezuelan leader is a populist leader who can stand on his own achievements.

All told, the armed opposition groups occupy an indispensable space in Colombian politics. Some estimates suggest they control a third of the country. Their popular appeal with the poor means they will not disappear. This makes Chavez their natural ally despite ideological differences.

And, despite Chavez's 2 December setback on the domestic front, his diplomatic triumph demonstrates that his Bolivarian revolution is still on track.

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